There’s so much crap on the web. If I believed all of it, I’d think that the MMR vaccine gave my son autism, that every moon landing has been a hoax staged by NASA, that the holocaust never happened and that aliens have landed on earth and are manufacturing an army of zombies (those zombies are now stalking every shopping mall in Auckland).
How do you know what to believe and what not to?
A good place to start is with the URL, or web address of the website. What does it end with?
.com – short for the word commercial and the preferred ending for most businesses
.com.au – reserved for Australian businesses and citizens. They must prove they have a presence in Australia before registering for this domain (this is not the case for all country domains. Anyone can register a .co.uk domain)
.org – primarily used for non-profit organisations
.edu and .ac – universities and educational institutions.
.gov – government
.net – networks
.mil – military
A comprehensive list of top level domains is available from iana (Internet Assigned Numbers Authority).
The next place to look is at the website itself. Are there contact details in the form of a physical address? I’m always a bit suspicious of a site, a commercial one in particular, that does not provide contact details other than a contact form. Ideally, you want the name of a human, a physical address and a contact number which you can ring them on.
If a website is trying to convince me that the MMR vaccine gave my son autism, it would be a good idea to see what qualifications and credentials the author has. Do they have any expertise in this area? Do they have any authority in the field? Are they a member of a legitimate and professional association?
Does the author have a conflict of interest? Are they biased?
It’s also worthwhile checking dates on the page, if there are any, to see whether the information is current. Do links on the page work?
Does the author have any published works in scholarly or professional journals? It does not make the site illegitimate if they don’t, but if they do then it does add an air of professional quality to the page.
If factual claims are made on the site, does the author back them up with appropriate referencing?
If you want to restrict your search to a particular domain, e.g., all educational institutions, you can use the “site:” operator in a Google search. For example, let’s say I just want to search for the word “aliens” in Google, but only results from government. I can type the following into Google (everything inside the quotes) – “aliens site:.gov“. I can restrict this to web sites by country, for instance, a search for aliens from UK sites only, would be, “aliens site:.uk“. More information about this from Google at Search operators.
Google also has the option to search scholarly literature only, by going to http://scholar.google.co.nz
The logical conclusion to this post is naturally, how can you believe any of the above? My site is a .com (anyone can get a .com) and is a WordPress site. The presence of WordPress indicates that this is a blog. Anyone can get a blog, including Nigerian scammers. I provide no contact details, nor am I claiming to have any professional affiliations, qualifications or scholarly publications. I have one photo of myself, but how do you know it’s really me?
One thing you can do, is run a search to see whether any of the information I’m providing is replicated by other, more reputable sources. Cornell University has a nice guide for Evaluating website credibility.
Always remember, On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.